Egypt has opened the Rafah border crossing with Gaza for the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, President Abdel-Fatah el-Sissi has announced, in what would be the longest uninterrupted period since 2013.
The move is meant as a humanitarian gesture during the annual holiday, one of the few occasions in which Egypt allows some Gazans stranded by a 2007 Egypt-Israel blockade to leave and return to the territory ruled by the militant Islamic group Hamas.
The announcement came days after Israeli forces shot and killed 59 Palestinians and injured more than 2,700 during mass protests along the Gaza border.
Mr el-Sissi wrote on his official Twitter account that the opening would “ease the burden on our brothers in the Gaza Strip”.
Adham Abu Selmia, head of the Hamas-linked National Committee to Break Gaza Siege, welcomed the extension as a “positive step”.
“We hope the crossing will stay open as a normal right,” he said, calling for an increase in the number of departures and a faster exit process.
The crossing has been open since Saturday so Mr el-Sissi’s announcement is technically an extension and Egyptian authorities said 510 people crossed on Wednesday, the majority coming from Gaza into Egypt.
On Thursday, 541 people crossed from Egypt into Gaza along with dozens of trucks carrying cement, steel, power engines and medical and food aid from the Red Crescent, the officials said.
Last month, Hamas’s Interior Ministry said more than 20,000 people were on exit waiting lists. Through this week, an average of 500 travellers a day moved through the border, mostly leaving.
On Friday, travellers were slowly moving toward the crossing, a bus arriving about every hour with people whose names appeared on lists provided by Hamas officials, who oversee who goes through the border.
Monday was the deadliest day of cross-border violence in Gaza since a 2014 war betweenIsrael and Hamas. Capping weeks of protests, about 40,000 Gaza residents descended on the border area.
The high number of wounded has overwhelmed the Gaza health system.
Mr el-Sissi said in televised comments earlier this week that Egypt has been communicating with Israel and the Palestinians in an effort “to stop the bloodshed”.
He urged Israel to “understand that the Palestinian reactions are legitimate and they should handle it very carefully”.
In 2007, Hamas took control of Gaza by force, provoking the Israeli-Egyptian blockade that severely restricted the movement of most of Gaza’s two million inhabitants.
The Rafah crossing is Gaza’s main gate to the outside world but has only had sporadic openings since the 2013 removal of Egypt’s elected Islamist president Mohammed Morsi, a high-ranking member of Hamas’s parent group, The Muslim Brotherhood.
While Egypt has been struggling with Islamic insurgency for decades, militant attacks increased after Mr Morsi’s was removed, giving Egyptian authorities more justification to tighten movement to and from Gaza.
Over the years, Egypt has opened the crossing for a few days every two to three months.
Travelling has mostly been restricted to humanitarian cases, with priority given to medical patients, students admitted to outside universities and Palestinians with residency permits in third countries about to expire. Palestinian-Egyptians and dual-nationals are also eligible to apply.
Mr el-Sissi’s announcement is not expected to ease the lengthy, complicated security procedures that turn Palestinians’ trips to the Rafah crossing into a hardship.
Egypt’s security and intelligence services haves lists of Palestinians allegedly involved in the Islamic insurgency and anti-government attacks during the 2011 uprising that forced long-time president Hosni Mubarak to step down.
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